It’s not a game
It isn’t a game.
I do not write for fun. I write to sell books. Now if I was writing to test my skill, to show off to my peers, to prove a point… I might choose to ‘play ‘on the highest difficulty level. That’d be a challenge. But as I write to sell, I want it on the lowest difficulty setting possible.
The internet, and particularly Amazon’s Self-Publishing facility (all the rest were happy to co-operate with Traditional Publishing, where a pseudonym… wasn’t permitted. You dragged your old sales figures and past with you.) means you, Joe or Jane or Vla’hurrrg Author, are free to appear to be anyone to the buyer. Amazon doesn’t care if your real name is Nostrl Glooba, you are green, come from Alpha Centauri and need to be in a wheelchair, worship the twin demons ping and pong, and are a trasgender poly-amorous lesbian… and you want call yourself John Smith, a whitefeller from Ohio, 100% mobile, Catholic, (cis)male, Hetero and married with kids – or vice versa. This is very different from traditional publishing, and the Arts establishment in general which really does care. Personally I find the former refreshing, and commendable. YMMV.
Now, according to John Scalzi the easiest level of life is being white male. Numerous other folk will tell you that this ‘privilege’ (bit puzzling this this. I always thought privilege was something I was given and could choose therefore to accept or refuse, and it could be taken away. That was enjoyable. ) makes life easier. I believe it does apply as a broad rule for life… in Chechnya. Of course, being able to speak Chechen, and being a Sunni Moslem are also essentials. Publishing there is not a large business. Comparatively, across humanity, being white and male comes a long way down on being other things in many, many places. This is, of course also the reality in niches within humanity, the professions and the seeming infinite micro-climates of life as we really experience it and live it. Being thought to be a white male is no advantage in Romance writing (because I know quite a few exist, but they hide the fact), but would be in writing Chechen religious tracts. It’s all very well saying it helps with avoiding arrest in Chicago, or getting help from a mechanic in Nebraska, but I’m a writer of internet space . That’s my niche.
Here we can choose. After all, as no one ever has to know Nostrl Glooba is really John Smith (or vice versa) – or if you feel they’re all bigots who discriminate against a common Alpha Centauran/US name… you can be a success, and then, a la Tiptree, show them how wrong they were. And speaking personally, again, I really do not care what my readers think I am. I care about them liking the story and being prepared to pay for it, and the next one. I want it as easy as possible, and if faking being something I’m not will work to overcome reader prejudice to get them to at least try it, I’d consider it.
So – I am a writer of sf and fantasy: what IS this lowest difficulty setting in my niche?
Well, let’s run the numbers and see:
Earlier this year I answered a post on the numbers of new releases from publishers divided by sex, and looking at ‘newness’ Back then the traditional publishers were skewed marginally female, and if you took out the long established authors and just did the 3 book or less than 10 years in publishing – very skewed to female. It was a long process as I had to check every author, and obviously specific numbers change month by month, and I’m not prepared to invest the time again so soon. But let’s look at one large publisher as a sample. I picked on Tor (what? I never called it a scab. You’re hearing things, Beside my mother told me not pick at them, but to leave them to heal). I discounted graphic novels or things that obviously weren’t novels, or weren’t sf (stock car racing). I counted Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory out as one of each. Overall I ended with a 57 % male : 43 %female ratio. Simply taking those I knew, I came up with about 5% ‘PoC’ so the real figure may be higher. As it happens I knew the sexual orientation of some authors (it’s not a secret) and based on that the figure is around 4% non-Hetero. I could be getting that wrong too. Taking ‘New’ authors (names that haven’t been around forever – or if they have I failed to recognize them – sorry this time I didn’t bother to look up every one, just the ones where gender could by name or initial be confused. Consider it a reasonable guesstimate) Female 69% female to 31% male.
So: given those more or less hold up from last time, one can say there was a historical advantage in traditional print – at least in longevity in print of male authors. If you limit the oldies to pale male it’s around 50:50. There appears to be difference between the predicted ‘PoC’ number based on demographics, and merely looking at Hispanic seeming names, I’d guess pretending to be one of these is a poor strategy – but of course they won’t let you pretend and demand to know who you are, although they will let you fool readers. As we don’t have an official number for homosexual people it’s pretty hard to say if they’re over or under accepted by traditional publishers. I’ve seen the 4% stat quoted but I don’t know. But overall, if you wanted to enter traditional publishing now, it looks like being female has some advantage. That could be an artifact from the number of entrants.
Then we look at the awards. Well, we’ve just had the Nebula awards, which were 100% female won. I think 25% would qualify as PoC (but with 4 winners, less than 25% = 0). Not sure of the orientation of all of the participants, but 3 of 4 mention husbands in the easy-to-access material. So if you want to be a Nebula winner, that was, this year, obviously not the easy game on male and white. Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your point of view… based on their effect on sales the Nebs are if anything, cash and reader negative, so we can therefore assume that yes, if you want readers, and money, either it doesn’t matter or yes, ‘male’ can still be considered the easy level. But let’s see what the actual sales say. Maybe I’m wrong and they’ll all be at the top of the sales boards.
Hmm. Using the Kindle top 100 sf & fantasy bestsellers as a filter: the answer is no. Now because I’m just an author being curious, not a fisheries scientist being paid to be thorough, this – as with the rest of my figures here are not a deep systematic statistical analysis. Those top 100 figures do change by the hour, and I only looked at the top 40. In the hour I did in –between 10AM and 11AM my time – the male: female ratio was… 57.5% male to 42.5 female. Not really statistically significant, about the same as Tor’s new releases. Taking that as ‘new’ writers (and I did actually search every one) That’s 51% male to 49% female – not substantively different to the actual proportions of men and women… and quite different to Tor’s female bias. As I say not conclusive, but certainly means that it is unnecessary to change my name to Davina to gain advantage. A purely visual assessment, and reading the bios… subjective, and quite possibly wrong – but also all the readers have to go on – all appeared to be white. And where a partner was mentioned (almost always) all heterosexual (and, it seems often married with children, and not all young). A sample of 40 bestsellers in that hour is not definitive, but a fair guess, being white, and heterosexual doesn’t hurt either.
So I guess John Scalzi is at least semi-right for once in this subset: as far as getting readers are concerned white male has a microscopic – probably not significant in a larger sample — edge on white female, despite the discrimination at the publisher and arts establishment level against them. It does say that readers probably don’t care, just as Amazon doesn’t, and traditional publishers and arts establishment do. It would need participation clues too, to see how issues like orientation and ethnicity affect the numbers. I think it’s probably quite complex, and may relate to the type of book being produced. If you’re say… Korean and write a book that will really appeal only to other Koreans it probably won’t be a bestseller, although it could do well for you. If you write a book that appeals to, and shows the interesting side of your culture, to other ethnicities, it could be a bestseller – there are plenty of examples of just that. But in general, your chances as straight white male of writing a book with character that can be identified with to a large section of the US English reading population are higher, and Alex Dally McFarlane will have to go on dreaming of all books suddenly not having binary gender as a norm.
Where this really got interesting for me, however, was something I did out of curiosity about comments made on Cedar Sanderson’s excellent post by Michael Perry – the fellow who rebrands public domain books and came and moaned about how mean Amazon is – comments on price. I split the top 40 by gender – and worked out the median and average prices.
Overall median price was $3.99 (and I divided GRR Martins 5 booker by 5). Average was $4.43 – median is better measure here, as the sample is small, and a few expensive books skew it badly
Female median price: $1.99 – eight books at 99 cent books, and one $1.99. (at 35% royalties) the rest at 70%
Male median price: $4.99 — one book at 99 cents, and two at $1.99 (at 35% royalties) the rest at 70%
Now as Amazon ranking work on total earnings (no one knows fully how they work, bar someone at Amazon, and God, and neither are telling me – but dollar sales value is part of it) we can work out that some of those female authors did outsell the male competitors ranked above them. They also took home much less money. I’ll leave you to reach any conclusion you like – because we just don’t know. We do know that the market will at bestseller level support noobs who charge $2.99 or more, of both genders. It is interesting. Also worthy of note was just what genres there were, and who wrote them. I noticed a complete lack of ‘hard sf’. Military-ish sf – by indies, male, and priced at more than $2.99 + was the nearest it came. The upper end was mostly gritty fantasy. Zombies Werewolves and vampires are still around. Time travel cropped up a couple of times – I thought it was deader than the moon, but time-travel + romance does seem to be doing Okay. Three of female $0.99… had naked male torso’s on them. Obviously a good market for that. I wonder if Davina could write it. The other thing that struck me is that you’re obviously not playing in this league if you attract less than 50 reviews. And as final point while there are some recognizable names – Brandon Sanderson, Diana Gabaldon, GRR Martin through recognized big houses, there were – right up there at the top of the list – several full 70% earning indies. And there were some big names selling for $0.99.
But I still don’t know what the easy setting is. Do you think I’d be better off as Nostrl Glooba from Alpha Centauri?